Thirty seconds after Woodbine race announcer Robert Geller finished calling the 161st Queen’s Plate on Sept. 12, a big, fat spider marched in by his window, and plunked himself down in front of him.
“I guess he was out watching the race,” Geller said. The arachnid was probably as astonished as the rest of us. It’s 2020, after all.
“Come on, Robert,” the eight-legger might have been saying. “Really?”
Consider this: the emphatic winner Mighty Heart (named after a woefully, spunky, runt-of-the-litter ugly Sphynx cat that beat all of the odds) broke from post 13, wore saddle pad 13 and went off at odds of 13 to 1. And oh yes, he has only one eye. How many omens do you need?
The best bit is that Mighty Heart is owned by small breeder (and I mean, SMALL breeder) Lawrence Cordes, who owns only a couple of broodmares. (Guess there’s hope for all of you in this game.) Trainer Josee Carroll, winning her third Queen’s Plate, has seen some of Cordes’ product before. Carroll, the first and only female trainer to win the Queen’s Plate, was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame last year. Carroll motors on, making history. (Mighty Heart was her third Queen’s Plate win.)
“This will be the third one I’ve had for [Cordes],” Carroll said yesterday after the race.
Last year, she trained In Memory of Floyd (a gelding that won $86,800 for Cordes). This horse was also named after one of Cordes’ cats. The year before that, Carroll trained Touch of Emma, proud winner of $85,343. Then the mare (Emma’s Bullseye – yes, mother of a horse with one eye), died while foaling this year. The resulting foal is growing up with a nurse mare.
Can the story have any more twists?
Emma’s Bullseye, herself, won only $19,740 in her career, but Carroll calls Cordes a student of pedigrees, who studies them diligently but undertakes them with a beer budget. He bred her to Dramedy, not a name that trips off the tongue like Secretariat or Man O’War. But he was determined and gritty enough to win the G2 Elkhorn Stakes in 2015 over 1 ½ miles at Keeneland on the grass as a 30 to 1 shot. He’s since been shipped off to stand at stud in Saudi Arabia. So there aren’t many Dramedys around these parts. And his crops weren’t huge.
One thing Carroll knows about Dramedy: He gets horses that can run all day, like Mighty Heart, who just won $600,000 in winning the Queen’s Plate. Before Mighty Heart did his thing, Cordes’ horses had won a total of $980,557 over a 20-year span. Cordes has enjoyed only 28 wins in that time. Mighty Heart is the 29th. His previous best horse was Turkish, a horse he claimed for $40,000, that went on to win the 2014 Valedictory Stakes over Pender Harbour.
And Mighty Heart didn’t just win the race. He dominated it, crushed his opposition by 7 ½ lengths, set a torrid pace as the rest floundered in his wake, and finished the 1 ¼ miles in 2:01.98, the second-fastest Queen’s Plate in history.
“This is a serious horse,” Carroll says now.
She remains non-committal about sending him on to the second leg of Canada’s Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Sept. 29.
Carroll was watching three of her horses in the Queen’s Plate: Woodbine Oaks winner Curlin’s Voyage, who was the Plate favourite at 2 to 1. She finished fifth, hung out on the outside for too long in mid-pack.
Her other charge was Belichick, named after the New England Patriots coach, a 26 to 1 shot that hadn’t won a race in two starts. But he finished second in the Queen’s Plate, well ahead of Plate Trial winner Clayton, who made a bid at the top of the stretch but flattened out.
Third choice, Halo Again. finished 14th of 14. It was a topsy turvy Plate.
As Mighty Heart was ringing off fractions of 23.57 for the quarter, 47.61 for the half, 1:12.70 for the three-quarters, Carroll was thinking: “You’re going a little quick up there, back it off a little.” But Mighty Heart was running easily, and when jockey Daisuke Fukumoto asked the horse at the head of the stretch, Mighty Heart put distance between himself and all of the others, who looked scattered and defeated.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Japanese-born Fukumoto, riding in his first Queen’s Plate. (The Queen’s Plate was only the third stakes victory of his career.) Fukumoto has also never ridden the horse in any of his four previous starts. “He was feeling good today. He broke good. I saw that nobody [wanted the lead]. He just kept going. After the wire, he was still going. He didn’t stop.”
Fukumoto was aware the pace was fast, but he let him go. “He only has one eye, but he has a big heart,” he said.
Nobody really knows how Mighty Heart lost his eye. He was only two weeks old, turned out in a paddock, and he came back with an eye so damaged, it could not be saved. Cordes doesn’t know if he was kicked or met mishap another way.
The loss of an eye hasn’t affected Mighty Heart too much. “Honestly when you think about it, he lost it at two weeks old. He didn’t know that he was supposed to have two eyes,” Carroll said. “It’s different from some horses that lose it later on. That’s the way his world has been.”
She has had a few challenges along the way. In his first two races in which he finished fourth and eleventh, Mighty Heart bore out badly while racing at Fair Grounds in New Orleans over the winter. Carroll said dirt came back and hit him in the face on the sensitive side. “He ran away from it,” she said.
So she covered his face up with a hood, and a bubble over the blind eye socket. And Mighty Heart was fine with this new arrangement. “He’s the kind of horse that once he gets confident in something, he just goes on with it,” she said.
And don’t forget the wolf tooth that broke off earlier this year in Mighty Heart’s mouth. It’s a little peg-like tooth in the cheek. Cordes feels it made all the difference in his turnaround when it was extracted. But Carroll just thinks Mighty Heart was growing into himself. He may have not been ready for this effort when the Queen’s Plate was supposed to have been held on June 27, postponed because of COVID.
Queen’s Plate Day was his coming out party. “When they turned for home, [Fukumoto] still had a lot of horse,” Carroll said. “He just kicked right on. I was very impressed with this horse today.”
In a flash, Geller’s spider disappeared, leaving him on edge as to when it might return. Who knows what will happen next? We are all on edge these days. It’s so 2020.